Monday 11 June 2012

Carpenter's Gothic

My battered and much read copy of Carpenter's Gothic
Carpenter's Gothic - William Gaddis

"I cannot really work unless I set a problem for myself to solve. In Carpenter’s Gothic the problems were largely of style and technique and form. I wanted to write a shorter book, one that observes the unities of time and place to the point that everything, even though it expands into the world, takes place in one house, and a country house at that, with a small number of characters, in a short span of time. It became really largely an exercise in style and technique. And also, I wanted to take all these clichés of fiction to bring them to life and make them work. So we have the older man and the younger woman, the marriage breaking up, the obligatory adultery, the locked room, the mysterious stranger, and so forth." William Gaddis, The Paris Review

Whenever I return to a favorite book, or writer, after a gap of some years there is an element of fear. I'm afraid that what I once saw will have disappeared or no longer mean as much. I suppose I distrust my younger self or feel that I may no longer be prepared to work as hard at a book as he was.

But I need not have had any worries here. If anything, Carpenter's Gothic improves with age. From a dingy house on the banks of the Hudson we hear reports, half truths and rumours from across America and Africa. Greed, money, religion, politics, all human life is here in a more concentrated form than the two large novels that preceded it. The main action takes place out of our vision and the main carriers of the news are totally unreliable, but from these scraps we can build our own edifice.

The Characters include Elisabeth Booth (neé Voraker) and her husband Paul. Elisabeth's father headed a huge corporation, as corrupt as it is/was powerful. He is dead but her inheritance is caught up in trust funds and litigation. Her husband Paul worked for her father and is implicated in the corruption, most of which was to do with mineral interests in Africa.

They are living in a rented house, which we never leave, and which is in the style called carpenter gothic, not quite copied in the title. It is owned by geologist Mr McCandless, who has kept access to one locked room to which he returns intermittently. The house provides the overarching metaphorical conceit.
"Interesting old house, you know what you've got here? the head cocked this way, that, -it's a classic pieces of Hudson river carpenter gothic, you know that?
-I know that, Lester.
- All designed from the outside, that tower there, the roof peaks, they drew a picture of it an squeezed the rooms in later..."

Paul is working as PR / manager for the Reverend Elton Ude, a preacher trying to get a slot on T.V. for his backwoods evangelism. Paul is also trying to get his hands on some of his wife's inheritance before it is dispersed in litigation and fees. In case this fails he is also trying to start multiple litigations regarding an accident that his wife was in. He himself was injured in Vietnam, a story that will unwind as the book progresses. He barely acknowledges Elizabeth's existence other than to criticize her for not doing something properly for him.

McCandless has come across Ude while involved in a trial on the teaching of evolution in schools. He despairs at the encroaching tide of ignorance that is eroding the science taught in schools in many states across America. "Try to teach them real science they'll run you out of town, tell them the earth's more than ten thousand years old they'll lynch you, the same damned smug stup..." He despairs at this ignorance, quoting Anatole France - "the fool is more dangerous than the rogue because the rogue at least takes a rest sometimes, the fool never.." Ude has also an interest in a mission in Africa which may or may not be a repository of rich mineral deposits.

Elisabeth's brother Billy turns up a few times. He has 'dropped out' and is in a relationship with a Buddhist, a religion he may have embraced himself. Other major characters include Lester, a missionary turned C.I.A. man;  the corrupt US Senator Teakell; Adolph, the administrator of the Voraker trust; Mr Grimes, chairman of The Company and father of Elisabeth's best friend Edie. Edie is also friends with Teakell's daughter Cettie who we hear of in a hospital bed after an accident. (Paul will try to get Senator Teakell to support Ude by sending a huge bouquet to Cettie's bedside and having Ude turn up there at the same time as the Senator.)

The book opens with Elisabeth observing a bird: "a pigeon was it? or a dove" flying. We then realize a group of young boys are throwing and hitting the dead bird  around "a kind of battered shuttlecock molting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they'd end up at that time of day." Is this peace, or grace, or innocence that is falling like the dead leaves? It also finds resonance in the plane crashes that populate the book and the dead end that many characters come to.

The title itself works on many levels - the Carpenter can be seen as Christ or as Gaddis. Is this his patchwork version of Gothic, quirky and individual as the houses? And as the houses were designed from the outside so we are kept on the outside, having to fill the rooms with plot ourselves from the clues gathered. It is also a reference to craft, to the problems of style which Gaddis set himself and answers so brilliantly.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in Jane Eyre
The whole story is told in a tumbling prose of half finished sentences and half formulated ideas. Gaddis catches the way the flow of thoughts are constantly interrupted by other thoughts, or by whatever is happening around the thinker. Weather, other people, the tv, the mail .. all these and more enter the flow of words, unannounced and undifferentiated.  This takes place in a world torn between cynicism and stupidity, or where both meet: "Keep an open mind your brains will fall out.." One chapter is interspersed with scenes and lines from the film version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles. Is this the true gothic novel that Gaddis reworks in 'carpenter' style? There are many similarities.

The sense of things disintegrating, or being swamped in irrelevancies hangs over the book. Early on Paul tells Elisabeth "If I'm going to get any kind of an operation going here we've got to get a system." This never happens. Elisabeth has an unfinished novel, McCandless a room full of books he will never read again and paperwork that will never serve any purpose. (Other than providing information to McCandless's old sparring partner Lester, who offers $16,000 for an old survey.)

The disintegration of meaning is part of the novel - "It's the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there...
 -like the whole damned world isn't it...he was pulling off the battered raincoat, -kids with nothing to do.

Paul goes to answer the phone at one point "setting his cup upright where the phone's cord had caught it, sopping up coffee from the scattered bills, notes, invitations to send off for 20-Pc. Bath Towel sets with free Digital Quartz Watch, to buy books, buy wrench sets, save seals, sell dinnerware, borrow money, booklets threatening tribulation, apocalypse, inviting eternity in florid colour - hey there, Bobbie Joe?" It is as if all this useless information has spilt into our lives from the giant coffee cup of commerce and religion, both often working in harmony.

Ude's ministry is threatened, comically, when two people drown at an immersion baptism in the river. (Wayne Fickert and John Doe. Doe will rise from the grave when his identity emerges.) This is not the only time crisis will envelop him but each time Ude and Paul simply turn it around and try to make it work for them.  Paul reads a sermon Ude gave from a newspaper - "I suddenly heard the voice of the profit Isiah, wherein The carpenter stretcheth out his rule, he marketh it out with a line, he fiftieth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and make it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house. And as I pondered the meaning of these words from on high, what had been a day of mourning burst before me as a day of glory!" He finishes with the revelation that he sees "the buildings rise, the dormitories, the sunny classrooms, the green ballfields of the Wayne Fickert Bible College" Ude knows where he wants to get and just uses whatever piece of scripture is to hand to confirm this. Meaning floats free of the words. Conviction is all he needs to convince.

Having two novelists, Elisabeth and McCandless allows Gaddis to insert comments on the novel into the book. He cannot question everything without questioning his own enterprise. Here's Paul trying to convince Elisabeth to write a letter as if from the mother of the drowned boy - "Write a novel you make up these different characters? put them in these situations getting rich, getting divorced, getting laid where they're talking to each other you pretend you're these characters so they sound real?" Lester critiquing McCandless' novel - "It doesn't end it just falls to pieces, it's mean and empty like everybody in it is that why you wrote it?"

During a long seduction scene, Elisabeth, who doesn't know that McCandless HAS written a novel, says she thinks he could write one, and they also talk of all the awful books and songs etc out there, some written cynically but some bad because they fail to match the authors ambition. She says "-that's the, isn't it that's the worst yes, failing at something that wasn't worth doing in the first place.."

But what is worth doing? McCandless says he was driven out of the house by the old man opposite “the old celebrant out there, broom and flattened dustpan”, "pretending there was some reason to get up in the morning."  This is McCandless' flaw, he is candleless, without light, in despair. This doesn't stop him being a truth teller but it means he offers no model on which to move forward. Paul is the mover. I am reminded of Riddley Walker, who is always moving, making things happen; and also of JR in Gaddis' previous book who is always trying to make things happen, even if he has no idea what.

Paul himself seems to despair of  money (his God) in a passage that could have come from JR - "money like that's supposed to mean you can buy the best, best food, best cars, friends, lawyers brokers all these god damn doctors but the money attracts the worst and the worst scare off the best because you're not leaving money to the kids that's not why happens. You don't leave money to the kids you leave the kids to the money, two or three generations everybody's crazy."

So money offers no solution, and neither does religion - "The greatest source of anger is fear, the greatest source of hatred is anger and the greatest source of it all is this mindless revealed religion anywhere you look, Sikhs killing Hindus, Hindus killing Moslems, Druse killing Maronites, Jews killing Arabs, Arabs killing Christians and Christians killing each other maybe that's the one hope we've got."

I could go on, quoting quotes, far too many of which chime wholeheartedly with my own feelings. Indeed, McCandless' talk of Hutus and Watusi (Tutsi) slaughters and jihads seems more relevant today than it did in 1987 when I first read this. It would need a more substantial piece than this blog post to do justice to this magnificent book. Maybe someday I will try. I will certainly be reading it again.

Bonus Addenda
Some poetry referenced in Carpenter's Gothic.
The book was originally to be called  "That time of year" from this Shakespearian sonnet:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)

McCandless is given to quoting from the following poem -

by Robinson Jeffers
Wise men in their bad hours have envied
The little people making merry like grasshoppers
In spots of sunlight, hardly thinking
Backward but never forward, and if they somehow
Take hold upon the future they do it
Half asleep, with the tools of generation
Foolishly reduplicating
Folly in thirty-year periods; they eat and laugh too,
Groan against labors, wars and partings,
Dance, talk, dress and undress; wise men have pretended
The summer insects enviable;
One must indulge the wise in moments of mockery.
Strength and desire possess the future,
The breed of the grasshopper shrills, "What does the future
Matter, we shall be dead?" Ah, grasshoppers,
Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened nor troubled
And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.


  1. This book was my first foray into the world of Gaddis. When I finished it, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. But after sitting there and mulling it over, it slowly started to fall into place. I began to realize what Gaddis had accomplished, and my admiration for it only grew. Reading this lovely piece has made me want to read it again.

    Seamus, have you noticed that Dalkey is coming out with a book of his letters early next year? I can't wait!

    1. Thanks for your comments- this is one of those posts that I hit publish without feeling I'd finished so nice to get good feedback from a fellow Gaddisite.
      `i hadn't heard about the letters - that's exciting. I can feel the stirrings of some kind of Gaddis event. I was just leafing through The Rush for Second Place and was thinking of doing some posts tied into it i.e. Reading Samuel Butler's Erewhon and Gaddis' essay on it.
      However The Letters suggests next year might be an occasion for a more ambitious Gaddis read along/ event. Thoughts?

  2. I wasn't familiar with this book but I'm very familiar with the feeling of dreading to revisit an "old friend". Glad it worked out well.
    I garee with Bubba, you wrote a very interesting review, I cannot appreciate it fully, as I have not read it but it makes me curious.
    I'll have to have a look and see if I can find it It sounds excellent.

    1. It's well worth getting your hands on Caroline. Gaddis is probably my favorite writer of the late twentieth century.

  3. Thanks for the post. I've been slowly making my way through Gaddis' books and this one is next on my list.

    1. You're welcome, Dwight. I intend to reread them all over the next few years.

  4. I'm late to the party, but appreciate the review. Every bit helps when taking on Gaddis! I've just begun "Gothic" and the fluidity of his prose is spellbinding. I'd started with "Frolic" earlier this year but life interfered; I just couldn't find the conditions of almost total sensory deprivation necessary for me to read and track him. Astounding writer.

  5. Adolph, not Albert. Cettie, not Cissie.